There is something about the way we keep time that puts an extra emphasis or focus on years ending in zero. Whether we are taking about birthdays or anniversaries we notice the big ones, the big six oh. The century mark is an even bigger deal with two ohs and of course many of us remember all the hype around Y2K with its three Os. So here we are as a protestant church experiencing our big five O O. Five hundred years, half a millennia. The fact that it’s actually still a thing means something, something of significance happened back there that still has an influence and matters today. Let’s see if this historical event has a Biblical context.
On that night. On that very night, the king could not sleep. How can this possibly be news worthy or Scripture worthy? Lots of people have nights they can’t sleep, even kings and queens. Yet this seemingly insignificant and mundane moment in the hands of God is the turning point of the whole book of Esther. Of all the moments in the book of Esther, this has to be the most insignificant, yet this is the providential pivot point for the great reversal. Haman is riding high, Mordecai is going to hang even higher, the Jews will be exterminated and then the king can’t sleep and everything changes. It’s not Esther’s feast or Mordecai’s loyalty to the king or Haman’s edict. They aren’t in control, they aren’t directing what happens. Clearly this is outside of them, it is the hand of God. Literally sleep fled him, which some interpret to mean God took sleep from him. Maybe the feast with Esther was on his mind, after all he did offer up to half his kingdom. Maybe he is mulling over what she could be wanting. What do you do when you can’t sleep. What happens next is yet another strange coincidence. Instead of calling for one of his harem girls, or asking his cooks to whip up something to eat or bring a glass of warm milk, or going to his office to work on some official business or catch up on e-mail and Facebook, he asks for the Chronicles of the Kingdom to be read to him, administrative records and reports from the 127 provinces of the empire. Frankly, this is the last thing we would expect. I picture this being the equivalence of the President asking for the Congressional Record to be read to him. A sure cure for insomnia. And in fact, that may be just what the king hopes, that the monotonous reading will put him to sleep. Of all the record entries from all the 127 provinces the reader turns to the page about Mordecai. What are the odds? While Haman is preparing to take Mordecai’s life, the king is hearing about how Mordecai saved his life. That nothing was done for Mordecai was scandalous for Persian kings who were known for generously rewarding those who did good to them. They took pride in blessing loyalty. Besides unrewarded loyalty could come back to bit you. Remember there was a huge gap, maybe as many as five years, between the event and this knowledge of it. The timing was very important, though Mordecai could never have guessed it. How often do we get impatient with God’s timing, with God’s apparent slowness in acting? How often do we want God to follow our time table rather than His? God’s timing is always exactly right for God’s purposes. One of the challenges of following Christ and being a Christian is submitting ourselves to God and to His will and His ways. Not my will but thy will be done.
“Why Did God …?” Have you ever started a sentence with, “Why did God …?” Have you ever been in a situation where your first thought is, “Why, God?” “Why did you do that or let that happen or allow that or make that?” If you are human you have had that question more than once. Or its counterpart, “Why didn’t God do this or that?” It is a sign of our humanity to ask the question, animals never ask that. That has been the question from the beginning of history. Why did God let Satan in the garden, why did God make man able to sin, why did God create everything good and then let everything go bad? Why does God do what God does? Why? If we want to truly understand the why questions of life, if we want to know the answers to life’s deepest mysteries, if we want to get at the root of all that has gone on in history and in our world today, we have only one option and that is to turn to God. God has revealed the answer to us. The answer to “why did God” is found in our text at the end of chapter 11 of Romans. This is a crescendo-like response to all the great doctrines Paul has written down in the first eleven chapters. Doctrines that sum up the first four solas. For eleven chapters Paul has expound on no matter how sinful we have been we are justified by grace alone, without any merit of our own, but on the basis of Christ alone, without any other sacrifice or righteousness of our own, though faith alone, without any human works to boast in. The only fitting response to this display of God’s sovereign mercy and grace in the face of our sin and just judgment is heart-felt adoration.
What is grace? One of the things that happens when a pastor lives next door to the church is people figure it out and start to come to ask for assistance. Last week a homeless man came to our door asking for some food, which we gave him. Was that grace? It was gracious, but it wasn’t like God’s grace. To understand God’s grace, I would have to change the story. I would have to add that this man had come to our home last month, broken in and robbed us, and now he was standing at the door asking for food. To not call the police, but to give him food at that point would be closer to God’s grace. Not only was he getting something he didn’t deserve or work for, but now he is not getting what he did deserve, to be punished for his crime. But even that wouldn’t be like God’s grace, because the law the man would have broken wasn’t my law but the governments law. If we would have turned him in the case would be something like the State of Washington vs. Mr. Homeless man. But with God our sin is personal, it is a direct assault and affront to His holiness and righteousness and justice. We have broken His law. There is yet one more way in which our story is not like God’s grace. The homeless man came to our door asking for help. Scripture says there is none who seeks God, we are all sinners resisting God or trying to avoid God by running from God or denying God. Scripture says it is God who first seeks us, who first loves us while we were yet sinners. [Illustration idea credit to Jerry Bridges]. This is grace. And this is why so many Christians love Ephesians 2.
What must I do to be saved? The question before us this morning is the greatest of all questions. It’s the Philippian Jailer question. “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas gave the simple answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). Many people today take offense at that answer. Sophisticated people, intellectual people, proud people, politically correct people, take offense at this simple message to trust and obey Jesus. They want something more complicated, something more mysterious, or more philosophically profound, or more difficult, or something that requires some great effort, perhaps something more severe requiring “asceticism and severity to the body” (Colossians 2:23). Self-made men prefer self-made religion, religion after their own making, where their gods ends up being made in their own image. What must I do to be saved? How can an sinful person stand in the presence of a holy God? How is that person justified, on what grounds? That’s the central question.
If chapter five was a movie the producer would make these first two verses very dramatic. The camera would move slowly, the music would be foreboding, the tension would be building, Esther’s heart would be pounding, her hands would be shaking, beads of sweat forming on her forehead. She is walking into a life or death situation with no idea which way it will go. Everything is at stake, her life, the life of all the Jews in the empire. Queen Vashti risked her life by refusing to appear before the king, now Esther risks her life by appearing before the same king. This is not unsubstantiated, there has been uncovered ancient art depicting a Persian king seated on a throne with a long scepter in his right hand and an attendant standing behind the throne with a large ax. Going before the king really is risky business especially in light of how unpredictably he has acted in the past and how much he acts on a whim. Will the king hold out his scepter or will she be executed before she can even speak? She really is walking by faith and not by sight. The fact that she is doing the right thing in no way guarantees she will get a good result. Remember the three men being thrown into the furnace in Daniel 3, they said either God would rescue them, or if not, God is still God and still good and He will do what is right to Him. Esther said, “If I perish, I perish.” Faithfulness is what we are to pursue, the fruit is entirely in God’s hands. Esther has no control over the outcome. Have you faced this kind of situation? You know the right thing to do, but you tremble because you have no clue which way it will turn out? It could be good or bad. We experience that in relationships, in work situations, in finances. What in your life is a sign of faith rather than walking by sight? Making a decision to adopt, to go into some ministry, to take a stand at work that may cost you a promotion or even your job, confronting a good friend about a sin, deciding to leave your career to start something new, when to retire or move out of our home. Esther lives in a world just like ours, where we are called to live holy and blameless lives before God but without any knowledge of what God will do or how He will bless, whether in this life or in the life to come.
We turn to another pillar of the Reformation this morning, Christ alone. In some ways, this was the central emphasis of the Reformation. Scripture alone points to Christ alone. Faith alone is faith in Christ alone. Grace alone is the grace of God extended to us in Christ alone. Once Christ was made central again in the church it changed a lot of things. Priests were redefined as pastors, all the fancy vestments were replaced with simple robes, the altar where Christ was re-sacrificed each week in the mass was replaced with a table for communion, and the pulpit was moved to the center as the ministry of the Word replaced sacramentalism. So much changed at the Reformation that we aren’t aware of and take for granted. So, the central question this morning and always is, “Who do men say that I am?” That’s the question. Who do people say Jesus is? And what do we do with this Jesus? What comes to your mind when you hear the name Jesus? Probably not the Latin phrase, solus Christus. Christ alone means three things:
With the king’s blessing, Haman, driven by an intense hatred of Mordecai and his people, issues a decree for an ethnic cleansing, a killing of all the Jews in the entire empire beginning in about eleven months. Esther 4:1-17. Some of you may have seen one of those TV shows or movies that depict some cataclysmic end of the earth like an impending meteor strike. And then the movie shows all the chaos and confusion and how people deal with the world-ending news. One of the things shows like that do is get us to think about how we would react if we found out that the earth was going to be destroyed next year. It can be a sobering thought experiment, a test of our faith and courage. Chapter 4 of Esther is that TV show. The Jews are going to wiped out in 11 months. How would you respond if the government issues a decree to kill all Christian next September? No wonder the city of Susa was thrown into turmoil and confusion.